A Guide to Rwanda, Beyond the Gorillas

By Nicole Trilivas

10 months ago

Everything you need to know about the land of (far more than) a thousand hills


Nicole Trilivas presents a first-timer’s guide to Rwanda, an African success story of eco-luxury, sustainability and community spirit.

Read the C&TH Guide to Responsible Tourism

The C&TH Guide to Rwanda

Image: Unsplash

Calling Rwanda the land of a thousand hills is selling it short. On a warm, steamy morning as my RwandAir flight glides toward the sparkling-clean capital of Kigali, I’m sure I count at least a million hills—all emerald green and teeming with life, and that’s not counting the dramatic volcanos. 

Don’t tell the influencers, but Rwanda might be more beautiful than Bali; and even before setting foot in the lush, vibrant country, it has made a good first impression. However, this wasn’t always the case.

‘People used to say Rwanda is the country that had the genocide,’ says Nathan Byiringiro, my on-the-ground guide arranged by luxe tour operator Black Tomato. Byiringiro was actually born a few months after the unimaginably horrific genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, giving him a unique perspective on how the country has grown and changed since then. ‘Now, people don’t say that. Now, we are so proud to be Rwandans.’

It has been less than 30 years since the genocide, but the nation has risen from the ashes to become an unmitigated success story. Rwanda is one of the cleanest, safest and most organised countries in Africa. ‘The goal is to make Rwanda the Singapore of Africa,’ Byiringiro tells me as we drive through Kigali’s pristinely paved and palm-tree-lined streets, conjuring up visions of not just Singapore but Los Angeles

The country has a steadfast dedication to community on a local and national level, with a commitment to creating green jobs and working collectively for the greater good. For example, on the last Saturday of every month, all citizens come together for Umuganda, a day of community service. There is also a real focus on sustainability (it’s an agricultural society, so environmental laws like banning plastic bags are welcomed) as well as wildlife, which draws the majority of the tourism (10 per cent of all tourism revenue goes right back into the local community).

Before my visit, my leading association with Rwanda was the mountain gorillas, as the country is one of the last places on earth where they’re still found in the wild. However, after spending time in the country and observing the culture of selflessness, I see that there is so much more. Byiringiro’s name means hope, and that’s what comes to mind now when I think of Rwanda.

‘We have a lot of hope for the future,’ Byiringiro tells me. It’s easy to see why.

STAY

One&Only Gorilla’s Nest

RwandAir has recently introduced new direct flights from London to Kigali, making a few nights in the country’s buzzy, future-facing capital an absolute must. 

True to its name, The Retreat is a 20-room tropical hideaway just a few streets from downtown Kigali and the president’s house. Running on 98 percent solar power and dressed in responsibly sourced teak, The Retreat was built by a family of public health professionals who originally hail from San Francisco but now call Kigali home—along with their six children, three of whom were adopted in Rwanda. The vibe here is relaxed and unpretentious with home-spun energy: the open-air Heaven restaurant serves modern Rwandan fare and has trained over 3,000 locals in hospitality (it’s also the spot to try a banana beer, called urwagwa in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s national language). Other reasons to stay: organic Naturalmat beds and a saltwater swimming pool, framed in swishy banana leaves and Rwanda’s deepest at 3 metres.

After Kigali, most visitors head off to one of the country’s four national parks, but Volcanos National Park (home of the wild mountain gorillas) doesn’t have to be the first stop. 

The magnificent Lake Kivu in the west could pass as Lake Como, especially if you’re staying at the stylish Cleo Lake Kivu Hotel, which has its own fleet of boats. South of Lake Kivu, Nyungwe National Park has views so beautiful they make your head spin. It’s the spot for chimpanzee trekking, as well as the site of one of the country’s top hotels, One&Only Nyungwe House, nesting in the middle of a working tea plantation. 

‘I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy,’ Ernest Hemingway said, and at Nyungwe House that seems especially true with four-poster beds and private balconies over misty green jungles; baths scented with Africology products; and breakfast feasts of fresh pastries and tropical fruit set up in the tea plantation. A massage—performed with the traditional intonga stick—makes for a spoiling post-trek treat.   

Then, of course, there’s gorilla trekking central, Volcanoes National Park, the site of One&Only’s sister property, One&Only Gorilla’s Nest. Spanning 35 hectares, this hotel feels more like its own mini-national park. Rooms provide a nod-to-place with tribal masks, walking sticks carved from Jacaranda wood and imigogo prints, bypassing weary colonial motifs. Fabric slippers, natural bug spray and local coconut wax candles by Kwezi Sana enhance the luxury factor, while the community focus comes via a partnership with Handspun Hope, which creates jobs for women.

EAT

One&Only Nyungwe House

Featuring on the 50 Best list, Meza Malonga offers high-end African fare in Kigali, while less polished, homemade dishes can be enjoyed on the al fresco deck of Repub Lounge (try an icy Virunga Gold beer paired with sambaza, small fried fish from Lake Kivu).

At One&Only everything is delicious: At Nyungwe House, tea is a key component. Try the tea-smoked cauliflower or a cup of African tea, served with more milk than tea, plus ginger, mint and lemongrass. Tea tastings and plantation and factory tours can also be arranged. 

At Gorilla’s Nest, it’s all about fresh fare, some of which comes from an onsite nursery and herb garden. The bar is dim and atmospheric with wood fires, birds of paradise flowers and cardamom-infused vodka tipples. The hotel is a sweet tooth’s dream with what the staff calls “temptation corner” in the main lodge with freshly baked cookies stored in glass jars (also, as you’re in potato country, it would be rude to skip the sweet potato tart for dessert). The hotel’s food waste is sent to a local pig farm, so bonus points for that.

DO

Lake Kivu. Credit: Unsplash

Though it’s not an easy visit, a trip to the Kigali Genocide Memorial should not be overlooked. The resting place of 250,000 genocide victims, this moving and emotional tribute puts Rwanda’s more recent success into context.

A visit to King’s Palace in Nyanza gives visitors a look into the pre-colonial past, with recreations of traditional royal residences made from thatch (there are also some impressive Ankole cattle onsite with massive horns).

Chimpanzee trekking in Nyungwe is a heart-racing endeavour, but equally enthralling is the dizzying Canopy Walk, a succession of walking bridges, suspended 70 metres above the forest floor on the Igishigishigi Trail, which takes its excellent name from the forest’s frilly palm ferns.

Of course, you can’t miss the gorillas: Black Tomato will not only obtain the obligatory permits for the treks (US$1,500 each) but can also arrange added extras, like a pre-trek talk with Dr. Julius Nziza, a member of the Gorilla Doctors (the only organization in the world dedicated to saving mountain gorillas) and a visit to the new Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

BUY

Leave plenty of room in your suitcase because Rwanda has some seriously chic handicrafts including beaded walking sticks, handwoven baskets, imigongo artwork and upcycled jewellery.

In Kigali, The Retreat has two well-curated boutiques onsite (as well as an in-house tailor for custom Kitenge fabric pieces), though you can also practice your haggling skills at Kimironko Market. Don’t skip Abraham Konga’s studio for ultra-cool jewellery, fashioned from discarded materials like brass padlocks and cow horns, in the leafy Kimihurura neighbourhood.

In Volcanoes National Park, the Red Rocks Arts Centre is right across the street from Gorilla’s Nest and has artwork in a variety of sizes. And for those who can handle their spice, a few bottles of Akabanga chilli oil—made with fiery African-grown scotch bonnet—makes for a tasty souvenir. 

GETTING THERE

Black Tomato arranges 8-night trips to Rwanda with stays at The Retreat, One&Only Nyungwe House and One&Only Gorilla’s Nest from £14,800 pp, including porters, national park fees and tracking permits; excluding flights. +44 207 426 9888; blacktomato.com

RwandAir  is the only airline offering non-stop flights from the UK to Rwanda with fares starting at £595. From November 2023 flights will go daily between the two cities. 01293 874 922; rwandair.com

 BOOK IT:

For more information, go to visitrwanda.com